Monday, May 24, 2010

Venice and Varanasi

Geoff Dyer's novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, turned out to be one of my most satisfying reads this year. It's a novel unlike anything I've read before. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi can actually be considered as two novellas -- the first set in Venice and the other, well, in Varanasi, which is supposedly the holiest city in India.

So let's discuss the first part of the novel, shall we? Every two years, the art community (artists, curators, art buyers, art enthusiasts) find themselves in Venice for the Biennale. Here we meet Jeff Atman, a journalist who is tasked to cover this international art event. Atman is the ultimate art insider -- he knows everyone of influence in the art world and gets invited to every notable party during the Biennale.

Jeff forms a romantic relationship with Laura, an American who's a curator of a gallery. Dyer's description of their romance borders on the graphic. It's well handled though. Dyer seems to make the reader feel that everything in Venice is in excess -- the partying, the exhibits, the people, and, yes, even the sex. It is also in Jeff and Laura where Dyer shows that the art community, despite their belonging to the art world, are jaded and embarrassingly have an almost superficial appreciation for artworks.
...she told him about an exhibition she hoped, one day, to curate. Having seen the look of stunned disappointment on the faces of so many gallery-goers, she aimed to take the bull by the horns with a show called 'Is That It? featuring works by some of the most consistently disappointing artists of the day. Soon they were trading titles for a series of related exhibitions:
'This, That and "The Other."'
'Something of Nothing.'
'Next to Nothing."
'Slim Pickings."
'Climaxing with a symposium of curators and critics,' Laura said. 'Something along the lines of "Now Talk Your Way Out of That."' [page 114]
Jeff seems to have found heaven in Venice, especially after meeting Laura. He has this epiphany about "life" in one of the most pretentious and excessive places in the planet. But there's this element of shallowness to Jeff's thinking, a certain contrived manner if you will. In a way, Dyer prepares the reader for the second part of the novel.
And now she'd come and put her arm around his waist. Life was too good to be true! His whole life was validated by the last couple of days in Venice. He'd never made a mistake in his life because everything, even the mistakes, had led to his being here now. That was the thing about life. You couldn't cherry-pick the good bits. You had to say yes to the whole package, all the ups and downs, but if the ups -- the highs -- were like this, you'd sign up willingly to the downs because, by comparison, they were nothing, so irrelevant he couldn't even remember them. [page 121]
But everything will not turn out well for Jeff. Laura leaves him with the promise of keeping in touch, but Dyer makes it clear that what Jeff and Laura have in Venice is temporary.

And so we get to the second part of the novel, which is narrated by a man who may or may not be Jeff Atman. If Dyer's focus in Venice is the superficial, he shifts his theme to one of introspection and meditation in Varanasi. We don't read about parties and displays of wealth and excess in Varanasi. We get to feel how Varanasi becomes the place where the narrator finally discovers himself. Amid the decay, the dirt, and the gloom that pervade in Varanasi, Dyer's narrator comes full circle.
The reason it doesn't feel like renunciation is because it's not. I didn't renounce the world; I just became gradually less interested in certain aspects of it, less involved with it -- and that diminution of interest was slowly reciprocated. That's how it works. The world stops singling you out; you stop feeling singled out by the world. [page 279]
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, despite its profound ideas, is actually very readable. Dyer has written a novel so beautiful and so atmospheric and evocative of two different worlds.

Read this book if:
  1. You're an art enthusiast.
  2. You wonder about what goes on during the Biennale.
  3. You've always wanted to go to India.


ןıuǝ oɟ ɟןıƃɥʇ said...

i've been to both places. its interesting how different places provide different hooks...

Peter S. said...

You're so lucky, line of flight!

Hannah Stoneham said...

I was drawn to your post because Venice and Varanasi are two of my favourite places - and on top - I am an art enthusiast, so i suspect that I fit into your category for reading this book -

Thanks so much for sharing, it was a pleasure to read your review


Book Dilettante said...

Hae not isited either place, so am intrigued. But I wonder, where is the death in Varanasi? It wasn't mentioned. I thought at first it was a mystery novel, but I see it's not. Love art, so must remember to check out the book!

Stepford Mum said...

I want to read this! Art in fiction again, hey? :)

Peter S. said...

@Hannah: It's also a pleasure having you here!

@Book Dilettante: Oh, it has something to do with the rituals in Varanasi that involve death.

@Stepford Mum: I can't wait to hear what you think of this book!

Birdy said...

Being from India I guess I must read this book. I have heard quite a bit about this by now :) And hey, nice blog and some wonderful reviews you have here... :)

Birdy from Lifewordsmith